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Josh Hollander, director of 3D production at Pixar, talks Monsters Inc 3D

INTERVIEWS - FILM

Pixar digs up the past with Monsters Inc. 3D...

Exclusive: Josh Hollander, director of 3D production at Pixar, talks Monsters Inc 3D...

Marcus Pullen spoke with Josh Hollander, Pixar’s director of 3D production on the latest Disney 3D re-release. This time it’s Monsters Inc...

Shadowlocked speaks to Josh Hollander, director of 3D at Pixar Studios...At the time I wrote this article up I hadn’t seen Monsters Inc. in 3D; and, being honest, I wasn’t really sure that I would. I, like many people, thought that regurgitating old CGI movies was just a way of making some quick money. However, all this changed after speaking to Josh Hollander...

After doing some proper research and talking to someone who was at the cutting edge of this incredible process, I for one am now keen to see the film and can understand that both Disney and Pixar took a big risk undertaking such an ambitious process. However, the rewards will not just be a gargantuan mouse house. No, the film will also score points with fans of some classic and timeless animation masterpieces; and here's why...

Josh [Hollander], you seem to be a bit of a polymath. Just how did you get into production management?

Well, one of the things I love about Pixar is that everybody has some hidden talent and followed a different path to get there. I definitely followed a non-standard path to production management. I studied anthropology at college. I was in the music business for a long time. I have experience of management in various industries. I kind of stumbled into an information interview at Pixar – simply because I [knew] people there – and luckily I met some great folks, really connected with the people I interviewed with and just went from there.

I have always been somewhat of an animation geek. I have always loved cartoons and animated films. They have had a big impact on me growing up. That...with some of my management experience – and combined with my innate talents for communicating and organising – just led me into an entry level position around 12 years ago now. And once I got in, I just kind of learned the ropes and people were very gracious about training.  It was such a collaborative environment that I found I fitted in very well and my career kind of took off from there.

Pixar has always appeared to be a very innovative, go-get-it kind of company, and they obviously see you guys as an investment. Plus, the 3D project is an interesting one. You have gone over these titles and I’d just like to go back to a great phrase called ‘Digital archeology’ the process of going back to ‘old’ films,  files, with the aim of finding out technology that's now obsolete. Can you tell us a little about that?

We’re trying to look at files going back ten years or more. So much can change in ten years, not only the software but the systems' infrastructure, our storage systems, storage locations, plug-ins, where the effects are written. So much is interwoven in at the studio and our technology. Sometimes it feels like if a butterfly flaps its wings in the Amazon, then one of our shots is going to break. There are so many interdependencies and it is the first and probably the greatest challenge in recreating our older titles in 3D. That’s what occupies a fair amount of time in doing it.

When it came to doing Toy Story 3 a few years ago, we already had a little bit of experience. Unfortunately though, we had to rebuild another pipeline anew because Toy Story 1 and 2 were that much older than Nemo was and their pipelines were so divergent, even in those intervening years. So, when we came to start working on Finding Nemo, it took a good six months with a few really smart senior technical people to build a technical pipeline that would work, and thankfully since Finding Nemo and Monsters Inc. were made so closely together that the same pipeline was able to work for Monsters that we had built for Nemo.

This is a problem that will eventually go away for you because you will be developing films from the get-go. Have you found, from developing two different types of pipeline infrastructure, that you’ve learned a lot of new technology innovation you can apply elsewhere?

Bob Whitehill, Pixar stereographer, in his studio...

I think so. The front half of the pipelines are different and the back half of the pipelines are the same. It’s the ‘archeology’ that is primarily different and we have a stage of production we have called ‘triage’, [used] in the resurrection of the older titles, where we just have to get the shot to look like it’s supposed to look, before we even get into the 3D, setting the parameters.

In Finding Nemo, we render a shot and everything should be fine...but then we notice that the dentist’s hair is missing, or the pelican’s eyeball is three feet to the left, and it's not immediately obvious why that would be the case. It takes one of our really smart technical artists to go back in and dig around to find out what's broken, and that’s not something we really have to do in the active features. However, such a skill really is applicable anywhere.

It’s spelunking. It's digging. It’s triage! It’s find what’s broken and fix it as soon as you can. And that’s a skill that’s applicable.

Ok...and how are these skills put to use then?

After the pipelines are corrected they sort of converge and [then] become the creative aspect of stereoscopic film making; along with the fixing that accompanies the production of any mono/stereo film.

You see, certain things can be exposed when you add the second camera that would not have been exposed prior to its introduction. For instance, a light reflection that is suddenly different in the right eye than in the mono left eye, that has to be painstakingly adjusted; or you might see around an object to expose some broken shading or an object that wasn’t painted because you’re seeing a different angle on it. All these things then need to be fixed in both the catalogue titles and the current features. So yes, some things are the same; some things are different. And definitely it’s a learning experience for all!

"Just like colour, composition and sound are all used to convey mood and emotion, and support the story, 3D is used in the same way"

I can imagine that the render process assuming you use a much faster kind of ray-trace based form of rendering and you’ve got texture brushes and particulate matter are all going to bring up their own ‘nice‘ little challenges? The way they were written then compared to new software is going to deal with those things so this triage is a good term.

It all sounds very technical, and meticulous. You must have to go and look at each frame with an unbelievably critical eye...isn't it all rather laborious

Animating Sully - from his movements to his fur - was a challenge in itself...Yeah, ‘triage’ – a little too applicable at times! (laughs)

We have to make decisions daily about the process. Our mission when we create these tiles is to match the original as closely – and humanly – as possible, whilst ensuring the end product is an awesome 3D film. There are instances where things are subtly different. For instance: we have random number generators on Sully’s fur. So the fur is not going to be in exactly the same position, but as long as the fur looks right – i.e. it looks like fur – then that’s acceptable.

In Nemo you have the surge and swell of the grass in that background, swaying quite melodically with the tides. As long as that looks right it doesn't matter if it's identically placed or not.

Haha. Anything else?

Particulate matter is another one and it’s worth mentioning. The practice provided its own unique challenge because in 2D we created a volume of particulate that added that sense of depth under water. You feel like you're under water, moving in and out of light rays. Basically, it’s the volume and placement of that particulate that worked really well, and we spent a lot of time originally making that right.

However, when it came to 3D it felt way too much. It was too close to camera and it felt very dense. And often it was composited incorrectly in 3D space, so that a piece of particulate matter was actually in front of a character, but they [the animators] found it too distracting so comped it behind said character. Ultimately, we had a lot of decisions to make and a lot of problems to solve in the case of that. These kind of cheats work fine in a 2D film but they get exposed as cheats in 3D, and they kind of break your brain.

So...we had to fix all of those. On top of that, we just had the basic problem of figuring out a new volume of particulate that maintained the feel, but wasn’t so distracting. So we wrote some tools that actually controlled the particulate, a ‘knob‘ you could turn to control and ramp off the particulate and the density of particulate. As you got further into audience space, further towards the camera, it all became a bit disjointed. In 2D a piece of particulate over on the left wouldn’t be too distracting, but if it's right in your face, in 3D, then it's all you – the viewer – can see.

All I can say is thank God for the technical experts. Without them, Sully, Mike and the vision of a 3D Monsters Inc. would be just that...a vision.

A film critic could be critical of the task that Disney/Pixar undertook to make these films 3D. However, after listening to you talk so passionately, you can see that the rewards are far more than merely a monetary thing. It's the technological challenges that have developed new tool sets, new ways of thinking, and there’s a considerable re-investment in what you have learned into making 3D CGI film production so much better.

Mike in 3D...part of the Monsters Inc. appeal?...Thanks for saying that. I think that was a great way of looking at it. We are loving it. I really think seeing Finding Nemo and Monsters Inc. in 3D is worth the effort – you will see things brought to these films that could not have existed otherwise. When you’re watching Nemo in 3D you feel like you’re underwater with these characters.

We always say that 3D can be used as another tool in the filmmaker’s storytelling toolbox. Just like colour, composition and sound are all used to convey mood and emotion, and support the story, 3D is used in the same way. In Nemo, your underwater experience with these characters is enhanced, and in Monsters you're seeing through a door from one environment, feeling it in a way that, without 3D, would not be possible. For example: the size of Sully compared to the diminutive stature of Boo – it's really brought to life, and emphasised, by 3D, so to bring this sort of experience to our audience is brilliant.

Going over these films there must have been some things that made your eyes pop when worked on in 3D? What in Monsters Inc. made you go 'Wow!'?

There’s one scene that surprised me in just the power of the moment, and it’s a powerful moment to begin with, but I feel 3D added to it somehow. Basically, it's when Sully, towards the end of the film, is heading to the training rooms – aka the Scare Floor – to meet Waternoose and conduct a scare demo. The relationship with Boo and Sully had really developed by then and Sully gives his roar...until then Boo had only known Sully as this soft, caring character, and Sully's demo is the first time Boo has seen Sully as this scary monster. There's just something scarier about Sully’s roar in 3D – its ability to bring the content to life really helps place the action and the true size difference between the two. Boo's vulnerability becomes a lot more apparent than before...it's just such a poignant moment in the film.

But then that's just it, isn't it? That ability, within good filmmaking, to really express emotion?

Yeah, that’s certainly the goal if we’re doing it right; and in 3D if we’re doing it right, you’re not sitting there thinking 'Wow, that was a great 3D moment'. No, in great – well, excellent – 3D experiences you should just be thinking that was great...because 3D should be bringing said moment to life, as if it was happening to you, or right in front of you.

That's the power of 3D.

Epilogue

It would seem 3D is more an emotional amplifier that gives animators a fair few headaches, rather than a mere money maker for the studio involved. Throughout its use, we should expect stereoscopic cinematography to mature and alter as an entity, ultimately emerging as a sophisticated, newfound level of engagement for the audience.


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